A while back I was privileged to attend the West Alternate School graduation ceremony. For the past 22 years, the teacher there has been Mr. Frank Ieule.
I could go on and on and tell you about what a special community Frank has created but instead, I’ll read excerpts from last year’s valedictorian speech written by a grade 10 student (for issues of privacy, we’ll call her Susan):
When I was first asked to write this speech, I was terrified. I’ve never been one to get in front of people. I decided to do it because I find it important to overcome my fear.
This school has helped so many people overcome and enhance multiple issues, some with social skills, others with academics and, I would imagine, some with more personal issues.
West has given me a chance to get through school. I didn’t think I would make it through grade 8 but here I am graduating from grade 10 on my way to 11. When I come to school in the mornings even when I don’t want to I have things to look forward to. I get to see friends, I get to relax and yes I get to write. I love to write it’s a passion and being here gives me a chance to express myself and a chance for people to experience what I write. One of my favourite things is when Frank walks into class and smiles with a good morning. No matter what mood he is in he can always make mine better. He can see when I’m not feeling well and he always has a shoulder to cry on or a hug to feel safe in. I love the fact that he shares his personal life with us which allows us to share our personal lives with him.
Frank has shown me that there are amazing fathers and male figures in this world which I never believed could be possible.
Frank makes this school which makes us . . . it’s the people here, the atmosphere when you walk in the front door. I am sad yet grateful that I got to be here. I’m sad because I have to leave this wonderful place and all the people. Yet I am grateful at the same moment because I made it. I have succeeded in continuing on.
Great schools are not a matter of circumstance. They are a matter of will. Many, will tell you differently but make no mistake, building a culture of success is not about money. A culture of success is predicated on will, determination, and persistence.
Ultimately, everything starts and ends with a teacher’s personal vision for his or her classroom:
– a commitment to making the changes to ensure greater rigor;
– a willingness to take risks;
– the desire to offer support and work collaboratively;
– the ability to be critically reflective and abandon long-standing practices that are not successful.
All of this calls for optimism which will breed passion. Passion, in turn will create energy. The West school community, under Frank’s guidance, is led with hope and optimism and as a result has a built-in momentum that you will be hard pressed to find elsewhere.
Optimism breeds passion. Passion creates energy.
Schools are engaging places, filled with positive energy because educators like Frank provide students with enriching experiences, positive reinforcement and enable them to discover their own admirable purposes. They give hope and love to those so desperately in need of both and in so doing they enrich their lives. They give students the possibility of a ‘new beginning’ and help them find wonder and belief, in themselves and the world around them.
I share this story because, unfortunately, a lot of what I’ve been hearing these days about education and our ‘system’ has been disquieting. Forget about our international rankings, forget about discussions around “personalized learning” (by the way, it’s here already, we’ve just been calling it differentiated instruction), forget about what it is we’re not doing and how we are apparently stifling creativity within our schools. How about, instead, we start our discussion about education by focusing on Susan and her experience with Frank and the West Program? How about we start talking from a position of strength, dare I say an appreciative inquiry, garnered from the reality of what is and what continues to be a quality educational experience here in Vancouver.
Isn’t it great that Susan went to a Vancouver school which, like all of our schools, appreciated and nurtured her talents – a school that helped her to succeed but didn’t measure this success strictly via grades? A school that measured success by the type of altruistic pursuits she engaged in, by her participation in the arts and tech ed., by her involvement in extracurricular events; a school that measured success in terms of her own development of ‘self concept.’
When we ‘backward map’ and determine that success will be defined this way, we can continue to create learning communities that will produce the competencies that Susan demonstrates through her speech: academic motivation, ethical behaviour and the development of social and emotional literacy.
Eleven years into the millennium, I thank Frank for showing me that good learning isn’t defined by a century and that what we are doing is making a difference, helping students like Susan “succeed in continuing on.”